19 September 2020


Cruising along with Craig Smith early on in the race.
Originally, I wasn't supposed to run the Fall Classic this year. Then Covid happened and everything changed. Due to new permit requirements and restrictions, most runners were automatically deferred to net year and only previous finishers stayed in the field. The field had to be reduced to a total of 125 runners. Some of these slots were taken by originally registered runners with at least one previous finish. the remaining slots were filled in with wait listers, etc. that had previous finishes. I was in the latter group. The field was set just a short 10 days prior to race day. We would be sorted into 5 waves of 25 runners starting at 7AM and every 15 minutes thereafter. Runners were grouped base on their expected finishing times with the potentially quicker runners in the final group 5 that would start an hour after the first group. I somehow ended up in this group 5 and as a result almost felt pressure to do well. I was thankful, however, as that meant an extra hour of sleep.

Coming down "Testicle Spectacle", yes, that is its name.
My hometown of Huntsville was well represented this year with a total of 9 runners slated to start and 2 fellow hometown boys were running right alongside me in group 5, Craig Smith and Rob Youngren. At least I wouldn't be lonely at the start:-) In addition to the Covid related rules, Laz made some additional changes to the rules as he felt the experience of the field of runners demanded it. First, no trekking poles would be allowed at any point in the race, but in Laz's words "there are plenty of sticks to be found in the woods". Second, there would be no aid whatsoever other than water jugs along the course. Third, runners would not receive the course maps until 45 minutes prior to the start of their respective waves, when they would pick up their race bibs. This would be interesting as you really wouldn't have any time to worry about the map. Finally, the course markings were promised to be even more minimal than ever before. As usual, absolutely no GPS devices were allowed, map and compass only.
Reaching the top of "Rat Jaw" the first time around, all smiles.
Since I joined the field fairly late in the game I hadn't really made any camping arrangements for the race weekend. However, just a quick post on the FB group had me being contacted Brian Young, a local hero to many Big Barkers and Mini Barkers as he opens up his backyard and home to race participants to camp for a voluntary donation to the local fire department. There also is the tradition of post race brews and moonshine and if you're lucky, some delicious home cooking as well. Thanks again to Bryan and his lovely wife and daughter for hosting me and the other fellas. I spend the evening before the race getting my gear ready to make sure I had the appropriate amount of nutrition for the day as well as appropriate protective gear for the long stretches of massively tall briars we would likely encounter on race day. I had a fairly good night's sleep in my camper van and by the time I pulled out of Brian's yard I was ready to get this show on the road. But first we had to pick up our race bibs at the local school board building just down the road from Frozen Head State Park, the location of the Fall Classic. Everything was set up to be socially distant, so we all just pulled alongside a table outside the building and received our bibs, maps and race swag through our car windows before heading to the actual race start.
"Dirt glissading" down Meth Lab Hill.
The course map was a huge surprise, having many question their choices even before the race got underway. In fact, I am almost certain some considered not even toeing the starting line. But why, you ask? Because in addition the usual challenging landmarks or highlights of the course we would have to climb the infamous "Rat Jaw" twice, twice, ...twice. What the...is this a joke? No way! I dropped a few expletives inside my car as I made my way to Frozen Head. This is gonna be hell! The good kind of hell, but still. After all, I had signed up for this. But it probably wasn't the wisest choice considering I would toe the starting line of the Bear 100 Miler in Utah just 5 short days later.
Reaching the top of "Rat Jaw" the second time around with a grimace of determination.
When I finally parked my van at the start/finish area I met up with Craig Smith to review the map. "So you know the area pretty well?" I asked. "I thought you do", he responded. This would be fun, indeed. Painful, but fun nonetheless. Both Craig and I had two previous finishes under our belts, so we knew what to expect. It would be a case of the blind leading the blind, but we decided to run together as long as it felt comfortable. Thankfully, I had just run an unofficial Barkley Challenge Loop a few weeks prior and the first 13 miles were identical. After that, I figured we'd get things sorted as we went along. That plan actually worked out to perfection, no wrong turns for the day.
The bottom of Rat Jaw requires 4 point contact.
As mentioned earlier, we started in the last wave. After a few quick hellos to other runners, we finally got going at 8AM sharp. Craig, Rob and I pretty quickly found ourselves at the tail end of wave 5. Everyone else seemed to be pushing the pace from the get go. I had no intentions of following that strategy. My plan was to start slow and not even try to push until after we completed the second climb to the top of Rat Jaw. The three of us stayed together for the first and biggest single climb of the day. Once we dropped down on the other side, Craig and I ended up pulling ahead slightly and continued to stick together for the remainder of the race. As mentioned earlier, I was quite familiar with the first 13 miles, so we were able to relax and just cruise along, up and down the side of the mountains and along the ridge lines. Once we passed through the first two checkpoints to receive our punches, the second being the Garden Spot, we started to move even better. 
Descending Meth Lab Hill or Testicle Spectacle...it's all a blur.
We arrived at the main intersection of the race, Tub Springs, a major water stop and bib punch station, were we would pass through a total of three times, right now and two more times after climbing Rat Jaw and the fire tower. The two images just above clearly show the deterioration and wear on one's body after climbing Rat Jaw twice. In short, Rat Jaw is a life sucking 1 mile stretch of a power line that climbs 2000 feet and is completely covered in 8' briars without a path through...until runners "make" a path.

Without giving away too much of the course, we not only climbed Rat Jaw twice, but we also had a few more challenging sections that are all part of Barkley lore. By the time it was all said and done, I crossed the finish line in a personal best of 9:14 hours for my third BFC 50K finish, which should be indication enough that this is one of the hardest if not the hardest 50Ks in the US. No GPS allowed, so distance and vert are estimated at just above 50K and north of 12,000' of vert. I ended up in 8th overall, which also happened to be my best finish at the BFC to date, aided by cooler weather than ever before.
Finally crossing the finish line, dripping wet...but no rain.
The highlights of the day were post race beers with some of the Nashville crew, Jason Loyd and Jeff Deaton before having my first real moonshine and other libations on Brian's porch. A good time was had by all!

Check out the video about what to carry in a self-supported race that I created for the Barkley Fall Classic:

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